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Co-working space for women of color, mental health support among 2021 Howard County Changemaker Challenge winners

The winners of the Howard County Changemaker Challenge were selected during a virtual ceremony Tuesday after 10 finalists pitched their ideas for social change to a panel of five judges.

Sponsored by the Horizon Foundation, United Way of Central Maryland, Women’s Giving Circle and Community Foundation of Howard County, the biennial challenge awarded a total of $60,000 to four finalists. Marcus Alston, of Alston for Athletes, took the top prize of $25,000 for his mission to help provide mental health first aid training to coaches, athletic directors and trainers to support young athletes in Howard County.

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The 3rd, a co-working space in Columbia for women of color entrepreneurs, received the $15,000 changemaker award; Sonia Su, a Clarksville resident and founder of Kits to Heart that produces curated cancer care kits, received the support for women and girls award of $10,000; and the Community Ecology Institute’s nourishing gardens program was awarded the $10,000 audience choice award

In his presentation, Alston, a Columbia native, shared his own experience as an athlete dealing with anxiety and depression while playing football in high school and college. He noted that the one person who might have been able to help him could have been a coach.

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“Unfortunately, coaches go through no formal mental health training,” said Alston, 26. “Coaches are required to go through CPR training, but you are actually three times more likely to use youth mental health first aid training.”

Developed by the National Council for Mental Wellbeing, the mental health first aid action plan teaches five points for providing aid: assess for risk of suicide or harm; listen nonjudgmentally; give reassurance and information; encourage appropriate professional help; and encourage self-help and other support strategies. Training can be in person, virtual or a hybrid of the two, Alston said.

With the $25,000, Alston plans to train 100 coaches, athletic directors and trainers in Howard County. He also plans to expand Alston for Athletes services by offering Athlete Haven, a holistic wellness platform for student athletes that focuses on three core pillars: mental health, sports nutrition and student-athlete development.

“My purpose is to help the next generation of athletes,” Alston said.

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Judge Ryan Brown, a member of the Howard County RUN Board for United Way of Central Maryland, applauded Alston for the work he was doing with mental illness.

“The practical nature of what you are proposing is fantastic,” Brown said. “Coaches are interacting with athletes probably more than teachers [or] educators. [It’s a] great opportunity to train them to understand the signs of mental illness.”

The 3rd won the $15,000 changemaker prize for its plan to open two retail spaces in its new 8,000-square-foot location in Columbia. Laura Bacon, founder and CEO, said the retail stores would grant new businesses access to brick-and-mortar sites to sell their products on a short-term basis.

Additional plans for the building include office space, board rooms, a stage and two restaurants.

“Our goal is to open a small cafe and food store before the end of the year to start serving the community on a regular basis,” Bacon said, with the larger space opening in January.

As the winner of the support for women and girls award, Su plans to continue providing cancer kits for patients while expanding into creating curated art therapy kits, too, she said.

“I am really excited to provide another resource,” said Su, 28, of the first art therapy sessions that will be virtual. “We will provide all the materials. These are not classes. They are therapy sessions, a support group. If you don’t want to talk, there is another way to let out all those feelings.”

Su, who is also a cancer survivor, started Kits for Heart after receiving a care package during her final treatment.

“My morale, my hope, were at an all-time low,” Su said. “To walk in my hospital room and see this gift left on my bed put together by a former patient, really encouraged me and motivated me. I wanted to do the same, but I wanted to make a bigger impact.”

As the winner of the audience choice award, the Community Ecology Institute will use the money to enhance its nourishing garden program, which it started in the fall by training volunteers, according to Executive Director Chiara D’Amore.

Nourishing gardens are designed for the lawns of homes, businesses and schools to grow food and provide ecological benefits by including native plants and pollinators, too, D’Amore said. Trained volunteers will help those interested plant their gardens to grow their own food and enhance the environment.

“Our three-year goal is to transform 15 acres of private and commercial properties into nourishing gardens,” D’Amore said. “I feel like we can do it.”

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